DALLAS (SMU) – SMU mourns the loss of retired congressman and decorated war hero Sam Johnson ’51, who died May 27, 2020 at the age of 89.
The venerable statesman’s dedication to public service spanned a 29-year military career and 26 years in the U.S. Congress. It began when he was a student at SMU, where he was part of the ROTC program, as well as a member of Delta Chi and Alpha Kappa Psi fraternities. He and his high school sweetheart, Shirley Melton Johnson ’51, married the year before he graduated from the University with a B.B.A. in insurance and real estate. Mrs. Johnson passed away in 2015.
In 2017, Johnson’s gift of $100,000 to SMU established The Hon. Sam Johnson Endowed Military Scholarship Fund to support the education of military veterans. He also donated historic papers and materials from his distinguished life and career to be preserved for future study. The archive now resides at DeGolyer Library, SMU’s special collections repository.
“We have always been proud to hold up Sam Johnson as an example to our students,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “His distinguished legacy includes courage and strength of character to survive nearly seven years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Military veterans on our campus who benefit from this support can be proud that their scholarships carry his name, and his library archive will inspire future generations to serve.”
After graduating from SMU, Johnson began his military career as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and as a member of the Thunderbirds.
In 1966, Johnson was flying his 25th combat mission over North Vietnam, when enemy fire brought down his F-4 Phantom. He endured nearly seven years of torture and isolation as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton and “Alcatraz,” a designated area of solitary confinement for prisoners who were the most resistant to their North Vietnamese captors. Johnson and these men were held to the floor in ankle shackles and tortured regularly.
Johnson shared the details of his POW experience in his autobiography, Captive Warriors. His family’s experience during his years as a captive inspired his advocacy for veterans and their families and the military scholarship at SMU.
During his 29 years in the U.S. Air Force, Johnson served as the director of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School and was one of two authors of the air tactics manual that is still used today. Medals awarded to Johnson include two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star with Valor, two Purple Hearts, four Air Medals and three Outstanding Unit Awards.
After retiring as a colonel in 1979, he started a home-building business in North Dallas. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1985, where he served until winning the race for Texas’ 3rd Congressional District in 1991.The Republican congressman served as Deputy Whip and was a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, where he had served as chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee. He also was a member of the Health Subcommittee.
In 2009, Johnson’s peers recognized him as the “most admired” Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor Society bestowed their highest civilian accolade, the National Patriot Award, to him for his tireless work on behalf of the troops, veterans and freedom. In 2016, Johnson received the Bipartisan Policy Center’s first Congressional Patriot Award, shared with the late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.
Johnson retired at the end of his term in 2018.
As an alumnus, Johnson served on the executive board of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and on the board of directors of the John Goodwin Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from SMU in 1994, the highest honor the University bestows on its graduates.
His extensive paper and digital files are currently being processed, and include photographs, press materials, speeches and research for legislation. In 2014 the stretch of U.S. Highway 75, between President George Bush Turnpike and U.S. Highway 380, was named in his honor. His papers include the large highway sign and other memorabilia that document his long political career and community engagement.
“Congressman Johnson credited SMU for helping shape him into the extraordinary servant leader he became,” said SMU Vice President for Development and External Affairs Brad Cheves. “We’re grateful for his enduring focus on doing good for our community and our nation.”